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Harry Levin--one of America's major literary critics--offers a brilliant and original study of the whole world of comedy, concentrating on playwrights through the centuries, from Aristophanes and Plautus in classical times to Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht and their recent successors.

Viewing the comic repertory as a richly varied yet broadly unified whole, Levin provides a synthesis of theories and practice. Isolating two fundamental aspects of comedy--the ludicrous and irreverent ''playboy,'' whom we laugh with, and the ridiculous and forbidding ''killjoy,'' whom we laugh at--he traces the dialectical interplay of these components throughout history and across various cultures and media. While mainly focusing on the plays and the stage, with discussions of such major dramatists as Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Moliere, and William Congreve, Levin also includes essays on such related topics as humor, satire, and games.

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James Joyce: A Critical Introduction
(1941, 1960)
The Overreacher: A Study of
Christopher Marlowe (1952)
Contexts of Criticism (1957)
The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne,
Poe, Melville (1958)
The Question of Hamlet (1959)
The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five
French Realists (1963)
Refractions: Essays in Comparative Literature
The Myth of the Golden Age in the
Renaissance (1969)
Grounds for Comparison (1972)
Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times:
Perspectives and Commentaries (1976)
Memories of the Moderns (1980)

An Essay on
the Theory and
Practice of

New York



Oxford University Press
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and associated companies in
Berlin Ibadan

Copyright © 1987 by Harry Levin
First published in 1987 by Oxford University Press, Inc.,
200 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016
First issued as an Oxford University Press paperback, 1988
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

Levin, Harry, 1912Playboys and killjoys.
Includes index 1. Comedy. 2. Dramatists. I. Title.
PN1922.L38 1987
ISBN 0-19-504856-3
ISBN 0-19-504877-6 (pbk.)

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America



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The following pages originated in a series of lectures given at
Oxford University under the Faculty of Mediaeval and Modern
Languages during the Hilary Term of 1983, when I was the
George Eastman Visiting Professor. Revised and abridged, they
were;  delivered as Una's Lectures in the Humanities at the University of California (Berkeley) in March and April, 1985. In
expressing warm gratitude to my sponsors and hosts, I should
particularly mention Professor I. D. McFarlane of Oxford and
Dean Donald Friedman of Berkeley. This published version incorporates a substantial amount of further revision and amplification. The interests it expresses have been on my mind through
many years of teaching drama at Harvard University and occasionally writing about it. The late C. L. Barber, in his preface to
Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form in
Relation to Social Custom, recalled the days when—as junior
members of Harvard's Society of Fellows—we were both starting
to think and talk about comedy. I also cherish lively recollections
of later talks with my former student Erich Segal, when he was
writing the doctoral dissertation that led to his Roman Laughter:
The Comedy ofPlautus. In bringing out my own book somewhat
belatedly, I should like to recall those friendships and salute the
valued contributions of those two good friends. A field of publication already large has meanwhile extended more widely, been
canvassed by numerous bibliographies, and developed a kind of
lingua franca among students of the subject. Where I have used
terms or touched upon ideas from the ongoing discussion, I have
tried to make specific acknowledgment through citations in context. However, I should single out two earlier works that I have
found especially helpful and congenial: Homo Ludens: A Study

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of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga and The Fool:
His Literary and Social History by Enid Welsford. By way of
supplement, I have reprinted four briefer essays which brought
me to the present one. Though these have been slightly modified, there is still some overlapping, which at this stage may serve
as links to reinforce the connection or to augment the documentation. My thanks to the copyright holders, then, for allowing me
to reclaim this material: "From Play to Plays: The Folklore of
Comedy" (originally presented as a Schweitzer Lecture in the
Humanities at New York University, December 10, 1981), from
Comparative Drama, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer 1982); "Notes
toward a Definition of City Comedy," from Renaissance Genres:
Essays in Theory, History, and Interpretation, edited by Barbara
Lewalski, Harvard English Studies, XIII (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1986); "Introduction," from Veins of Humor,
edited by Harry Levin, Harvard English Studies, III (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1972); and "The Wages of Satire,"
from Literature and Society, edited by Edward W. Said, Selected
Papers from the English Institute, 1978, New Series, No. 3 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
Cambridge, Massachusetts
January 8, 1986

H. L.


Points of Departure
Coming to Terms
Rules of the Game
The Argument
Bonds of Interest
Reductions to Folly
The Truth of Masks
Designs for Living
Mixed Emotions


From Play to Plays
Notes on City Comedy
Veins of Humor
The Wages of Satire


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It spoke unexpectedly well for the state of international literacy to
note, prominent and recurrent on the list of recent best-sellers,
Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose (II nome della rosa). That
lengthy, learned, and ingenious work of detective fiction is based
upon a painstaking reconstruction of life in a medieval monastery. Readers who have pursued the story to its last revelation will
have seen the mystery devolve upon a lost manuscript of Aristotle, an apocryphal sequel to his Poetics. Now the text of the Poetics
as we have it, possibly an abstract or a transcription from lecture
notes, is tantalizingly succinct. After some preliminary discussion of esthetic principles, it concentrates mainly on a thematic
and structural analysis of tragedy and—in lesser detail—of epic.
Comedy is merely touched upon by way of incidental contrast.
The wish to see it treated more systematically has fathered the
thought that there might have been a missing fragment. Such is
what purports to be rediscovered in Signor Eco's novel, but only
to be destroyed by the flames that ultimately consume his entire
monastic establishment. The consummation is justified by his
monkish pyromaniac on the grounds that, were this new source
of Aristotelian wisdom to survive, it would provide a vindication
of laughter, skepticism, and carnival.
Whether Aristotle himself would have fostered such genial
notions, or whether—like many another serious thinker—he felt
that comic levity deserved no more than a passing nod, lies
beyond the scope of present conjecture. As the most encyclopedic of philosophers, he had briefly focussed his scientific
curiosity on the matchless but necessarily limited phenomena of




Attic tragedy, through what proved to be the most influential of
critical documents. It has been a problematic influence, as enforced by neo-classical scholiasts, who turned his empirical descriptions of Greek praxis into dogmatic prescriptions for later
drama. Comedy, not having been so rigorously scrutinized, has
never been so categorically schematized. Less subjected to preconceptions or rules, it has been less respectable, sometimes less
than legitimate, and consequently freer to develop more widely
and more diversely. Indeed its manifestations have been so widespread and so varied that they may discourage us from seeking a
common denominator. We might find a word of encouragement
in Ludwig Wittgenstein's dictum on games (a genus of which
comedies are a species, as we shall be recognizing). We should
look, he tells us, in Philosophical Investigations, not for a single
formula but for a network of similarities, relationships, and family resemblances (Familiendhnlichkeiten).
The conception of family likeness seems especially apt for the
body of material we are approaching, since it brings out the
dynastic continuity, the heritage of kinship, while duly allowing
for the dissimilarities of individual talent and temporal adjustment. Tentatively we could trace our subject back, from an evolutionary or anthropological viewpoint, to a prehistoric origin in
ritual and folklore. (Hesitating to begin so recessively, I have
appended an article on protocomedy.) A live tradition, richly
variegated and culturally interrelated, extends from the Old
Comedy of Athens to the sitcom of television. One of comedy's
premises is the persistence of types, as manifested in character,
plot, and technical devices. This was virtually codified into standard casts and stock scenarios by the ancient and longstanding
conventions of what—after more than two millennia—we still
call New Comedy. These continued through the Commedia
del!' Arte into, and well beyond, Moliere; even Shakespeare was
affected by them, in spite of his resistance to typology; and the
movies fall back on some gags and gestures that were not novel
when they were used by Aristophanes. However, we are entering



a sphere where codes exist to be relaxed, and where surprises are
all the more welcome because they break in upon sameness.
The corpus that we can draw upon, though it ranges all the
way across Europe toward America, and from the classical to the
contemporary era, may be viewed synoptically as an aggregate
whole. To glance beyond it slightly would suggest that, where
conventions differ, we can point to certain parallels, as with
relatives in the Orient. The connecting link is the medium, the
basic fact that comedies are written to be played upon a stage in
the presence of an audience. Thus form is shaped by performance; the script is not fully realized until people interact with
one another through a special bond of complicity; in a sense the
playwright collaborates with the actors, who in their turn invite
collaboration from the spectators. All of them are involved within
a highly professional genre, which is just as much of a social
institution as it is a literary art (and in another supplementary
article I have tried to sketch its historic relationship with the
culture of cities). So far as he can, a reader should restage the
play in the theater of his mind, with imagination filling in the
visual and vocal effects. When the comic repertory is gathered
into the fold of literature, it retains a coherence and a concreteness which have been imparted to its texts by its theatrical
Through their peculiar closeness to the circumstances that
produced them, comedies have registered the imprint of their
times and places. Hence a tendency toward traditional uniformity is counteracted by shades of endemic difference. Devised to
meet particular occasions, comedy outlives them by appealing to
broad universals. The polemics of Aristophanes have outlasted a
collective memory of the Peloponnesian Wars, and few of the
many enjoying The Beggar's Opera have stopped to think about
the peculations of Sir Robert Walpole. Hypocrisy in the name of
religion is not yet a thing of the past, but it would be currently
professed by other creeds than that of Moliere's faux-devots.
Gogol's gibes against the Tsarist bureaucracy do not fizzle out for



lack of targets in Soviet Russia. Literary ventures that aim at
timeliness run the risk of obsolescence, and modern readers are
understandably put off by outdated topical allusions which no
array of footnotes could resuscitate. That is one reason why the
enduring forest has been obscured so frequently by the ephemeral
trees. There are other reasons—the sheer pleasure of resting in
the shade or admiring the foliage or wandering down the bypaths—why the territory, for all the trudging through it, has
never been very precisely or lucidly charted.
This does not mean that large outlines have not been projected. On the contrary: "Comedy has provided a happy huntingground for the generalizes. . . ," according to L. C. Knights,
whose own contributions have been more tangible. "Profitless
generalizations are more frequent in criticism of comedy than in
criticism of other forms of literature." Professor Knights's judgment, though severe, is incontrovertible, with regard to both the
inordinate amount of free-wheeling speculation and its failure to
enhance our critical understanding. Yet I suspect that there may
be a clear explanation for that cloudy series of projections. Most
of them are not addressed to comedy itself, under any kind of
pragmatic definition, but rather to some immaterial essence
vaguely classified as "the comic." The ambiguity is loose enough
to encompass cause and effect, artistic constructs and states of
mind. Interesting hypotheses from philosophy, psychology, and
physiology are imposed upon literature a priori. Little or no
distinction is drawn between genres, so that the relatively amorphous novel often fits in better than the more tightly constructed
drama. It is true, of course, that a number of pioneering novelists—Cervantes, Fielding, Stendhal—started out as dramatists;
but their shift might well confirm the divergence between prose
fiction and stage comedy.
If there were any single generalization that could be applied
with equal relevance to Chaucer, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh,
Milan Kundera, Milesian tales, Jewish jokes, banana peels, mechanical toys, content analyses, laugh-counts, broadcasts, cartoons,
monkeys, hyenas, and tickling, it would be much too sweeping for



any plane but that of pointless platitude. Whatever could be said
would hardly be worth saying, unless it took some account of the
variances. I do not mean to limit consideration of certain attitudes
and aptitudes that spread out into more than one mode of expression (and I shall try specifically, in two supplementary essays,
to consider the conceptual linkages with humor and with jatire).
But comedy as such is so fruitful a field, so readily accessible and so
concretely definable, that it claims centripetal attention. Critics
today are much concerned, and justifiably so, with theories. We
might agree that Anglo-American criticism, adept as it has become
at interpretation and appreciation, has been laggard in conceptualization, in the comprehension of forms through ideas. It is
therefore better versed in the products than in the processes of
literature. Lately, amid the hurry and flurry of catching up, it
appears to be pushing in the other direction; and theory, at too far a
remove from the observable facts, can go astray.
That is where the comparative study of comedy offers its
unique and available record of practice, which can be observed
empirically and theorized about in more general terms. Its dramatic background, which has tested its practicality, could have
likewise validated tragedy; but tragedy, on grounds that I have
already indicated, has had a more sporadic and circumscribed
history, while comedy has fallen heir to certain middling elements that had been excluded from tragedy. (Moreover, it would
be snobbish and self-depriving to ignore non-literary comedy,
whether in the cinema, the circus, the puppet-show, the nightclub, the music hall, or the opera house, so long as it is acted—
or, for that matter, danced and sung.) Given the richness and the
variety of the living models, it would serve no purpose to lay out
skeletal composites. Though I shall be citing many playwrights
and exemplifying from many plays—and hoping that some of the
instances, mentioned in passing, might stimulate the reader's
further interest to follow them up—this is not the place for detailed interpretation or rounded evaluation. Nor can it pretend to
be a survey, chronological or systematic. We shall be proceeding
by a synchronic method, letting the theoretical concepts frame



the selection of practical examples, by their very nature a motley
Seeking an appropriate level of discourse, somewhere between
the spontaneity of a notebook and the regimentation of a treatise,
I venture to present these observations as an essay. The inventor
of that experimental form, Montaigne, could at least be called
upon to license what might otherwise be regarded as an excess of
quotations and illustrations, a density of reference elucidated by a
discursiveness of style. In an area where speech is so important,
there are some advantages in letting the principal interlocutors
speak for themselves, whenever it seems pertinent—and sometimes, when they are foreigners, in their original language.
Given the angles and latitudes of the subject, exposition tends to
be more crab-like than strictly linear, with (in lieu of footnotes,
which all too easily might have swamped the text) an occasional
excursus or, at any rate, a parenthetical gloss. Arbitrarily but—I
trust—expeditiously, the essay will be subdivided into twelve
short sections, marking the successive stages of its argument.
These will move back and forth freely, from long views to closeups. Though the exemplification must be intermittent, dealing
with the cases where the points arise, there should be a rough
progression from the simple toward the complex. And it will be
the strongest proof of the theory if, in its light, the practice is
better understood and more thoroughly enjoyed.


Our subject is not as engaging as it might sound. Or rather, it has
been so very engaging that—in order to enlarge our understanding of how it works—we must cultivate a certain disengagement.
This, to be sure, is inherent in its workings, as Horace Walpole
saw when he drew his familiar distinction: "The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." That distinction was shifted, in Charlie Chaplin's formula, from a psychological to a visual plane: "Comedy is life viewed from a distance;
tragedy, life in a close-up." Classical commentators had regularly
distinguished between tragic pathos, or emotion, and comic
ethos, or conduct. The one entails involvement and the other
detachment, though each presupposes its alternative to some degree. Romanticists could therefore sigh with Byron: "If I
laugh . . . , / 'Tis that I may not weep." A wholly cerebral
outlook, if it could be sustained for any length, would overrationalize or else gloss over feelings which had to be experienced
in order to be fully apprehended. When we are teased, we ordinarily know that the taunts and threats will do us no harm. But



to become detached is to have been attached, and that prior state
of mind was less complicated.
Hence critics have had their troubles with comedy. Starting
with the incidental allusions of Aristotle, it has proved "particularly unpropitious"—in Samuel Johnson's phrasing—to all except the sketchiest and most obvious definitions. The very
richness and attractiveness of the material have tended to divert
us from the course of critical analysis. We are understandably
reluctant to see merrymaking reduced to a grim business. The
present reversion of criticism to theory is, generally speaking,
belated and long overdue, though we may seem to be reaching a
point where the study of literature itself is getting overrun with
theories rather less firmly grounded than Aristotle's or Johnson's.
In the special case of comedy, as it has developed, there has been
no lack of speculative discussion over the centuries, Yet here too
the speculation seems to have outflown the practical conditions
and the cultural forces that gave rise to the means of expression.
That disembodiment has coincided with a departure from comedy's social matrix, the theater, in pursuit of an attribute known
more abstractly as "the comic." As conceived so airily, in his
lecture-essay on The Comic Spirit, George Meredith adumbrated
some suggestive insights; but, like other eminent Victorians, he
had little flair for or conversance with the stage.
Nor has much light been shed, from a more scientific standpoint, by isolating the phenomenon of laughter. Darwin has
described its physiology and investigated its earliest stages in infantile behavior. Anthropologists have ascribed its bared teeth
and facial contortions to the primitive display of snarling aggression and defense mechanism. Oscillographs have recorded its
sound effects from the chuckle to the guffaw, the sourire to the
fou rire; and volleys of cachinnation from studio audiences have
been measured and rated by decibels. But, if it is a reflex, its
fuller purport stays dependent upon the stimuli that evoke it—
and tickling can produce the same result by the slightest manual
stimulation. Nor are we appreciably wiser when we transpose a
mixture of reactions, varying so widely from person to person and



from culture to culture, into the conception of a single instinct
which no experimental psychologist would acknowledge: namely, the sense of humor. In vivisecting laughs and anesthetizing
laughers, gelastics proves to be a dismal science.
The contradictions of the philosophers in this matter, I believe, can be resolved by taking a more open and pluralistic view.
Like the blind men with the fabled elephant, each of them has
firmly grasped a different part of a large, complex, and peculiar
creature. In groping toward a hypothesis, quite roughly, there
have been two schools of thought. The first to be propounded,
which emphasizes superiority (and thus connotes a bordering
sphere of inferiority), stems from Hobbes's concept of "sudden
glory": a subjective satisfaction with oneself over the infirmities or
the misfortunes of others. For this unsympathetic attitude the
Greeks had a word, epichairekakia, more or less equivalent to the
German Schadenfreude. A rough approximation in English
would be "I'm all right, Jack, . . . !," with its unspoken corollary. That is why Plato, in his Philebus, disapproved of comedy.
The second, which stresses incongruity (and thus connotes an
implicit norm of congruence), derives from Kant's idea of a
"strained expectation" that comes to nothing. This may be a
more objective criterion, since it lies not in the eye of the perceiver but in the nature of the perception, in the object perceived
and the strain of suspense leading up to an anticlimax.
Consequently I think that the two positions may be regarded as
complementary, insofar as the first denotes a viewpoint and the
second a situation. Briefly to take note of some further explanations: Freud, with his stress upon animus and release, falls into
the first category, that of the beholder or laugher; whereas
Bergson, with his emphasis on mechanism and reification, falls
into the second, that of the beheld or laughingstock. Philosophy
and psychology, in short, have been suggesting a theoretical basis
for the dualism that runs through English criticism between wit
and humor. Etymology is significant here. Wit, from an AngloSaxon keyword, is linked with the cogitations of the mind;
humor, from a Latin medical term, with the fluids of the body;



and it was the unique role of Falstaff to bestride this complementarity. "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in
other men," he declares, and the latter disposition will elsewhere
place him among Shakespeare's "irregular humorists." When
humors were defined as eccentricities, "the humorous man" was
a crank; gradually the humorist came to be seen as a person with
an eye for such crotchets.
Now ridicule, the noun or verb in its etymological fullness,
means laughing at (not with) somebody or something. 1 propose
to call that vein of comedy ridiculous. But there is another source
of risibility, or the capacity for laughter, which goes even deeper,
and which should perhaps be accorded priority, since it involves
a positive response rather than a negative judgment. This, as
opposed to the satirical point or the rational purpose of derision, is
the hearty laugh that—as Konrad Lorenz puts it—creates a bond.
To share the fun with others is to play, whether in sheer frivolity or
free experiment. That distinctive reaction can be summed
up in the adjective ludicrous, which means "playsome," "sportive," "jocular," as differentiated from "ridiculous" by Lord Kames
in an age when rationalism prevailed. Here the Latin root-word
ludus has the same double meaning as the English play, both
game and drama, and likewise as the French jeu and the German
Spiel. Blurred together, ludicrous and ridiculous seem to have
become loosely synonymous, but 1 should like to reaffirm the
distinguishing nuance, as it was well understood by the Scottish
rhetoricians. Though our problems will not be solved by coining
new terms, we may find it illuminating now and then to reexamine some of the terminology that has figured in earlier
A discerning historian, Johan Huizinga, wrote a stimulating
book to show how much the textures of civilization owe to the
activities of homo ludens, man at play. Man deluding, homo
deludens, would cross over from the ludicrous to the ridiculous,
as we should be seeing by and by. Moreover, he can collude as
well as delude: an actor, notably, counts upon the collusion of his
audience. Together they take reciprocal parts in creating an illu-



sion, converging just beyond the edge of everyday reality, and
waking from their fantasies of escape to the anxieties of disillusionment. No wonder they so often ask themselves—like Master
Ford, about to cuckold himself in The Merry Wives of Windsor—
"Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep?" Such a confusion is
typical of the comic protagonist. Whether he is bemused by
revery or bewitched by magic, intoxicated by drink or hallucinated by drugs, being deceived or deceiving himself or simply
going crazy, he must face an eventual awakening—happily if he
has been undergoing a nightmare, sadly if he has been enjoying a
wishdream. Though we shall not be moving in high altitudes,
dizziness will be a common complaint.
The quality that imagination suffuses through the arts is essentially that of a waking dream. Though playfulness is a distraction
and a diversion—distraction from the duties of ordinary life,
diversion from the routines of regular employment—it observes
conventions of its own. Many a game has survived by going
through motions that began as rituals: Mother Goose's collection
is full of fossilized examples, surviving fragments of protocomedy. The art of gamesmanship is manifested in gambling as
well as gamboling; and the players are gamesters, engaged in
games of chance as well as skill. Though they are no less eager to
be surprised by bountiful fortunes than loth to be overwhelmed
by adverse contingencies, the outcome that they hazard is aleatory, whereas for tragic figures it seems fatally predestined. When
"the sport" was particularized with the definite article, it conveyed a sexual connotation on the Restoration stage. "We hunt
in couples," says the hero to the heroine of Congreve's Double
Dealer, "both pursue the same game." And later on the two agree
that "Marriage is the game at which we hunt."
Bearing in mind this basic antithesis, we shall be engaged
throughout in tracing a dialectical interplay between the ludicrous and the ridiculous. But first it should be set against the
primary context of a broader dichotomy: the relation between
comedy and tragedy. Socrates argued, it will be recollected, that
the same genius would be adept at both genres; however, The



Symposium tapered off in vinous slumbers soon afterward, before
he could explain his reasoning; and it remained for Shakespeare's
works to demonstrate what, for Plato, must have been a barely
conceivable paradox. This might cast a sidelight on why Shakespeare has been so hard to pin down, particularly under the
aspect of comedy. Comedy and tragedy: the whole range of
human experience in all its complexity can be stylized and symbolized but scarcely encompassed by that pair of complementary
masks, that choice of grins or frowns, that polarity of L'Allegro
and // Pensero. By pointing out how incomplete and arbitrary it
was, Dr. Johnson was able to rescue Shakespeare from the cavils
of neo-classicism.
The generic dividing line, even with Shakespeare, had never
been based on the use of prose or verse. Comedy, more readily
than tragedy, has been attuned to colloquial speech; but, since it
has been more preoccupied with love, it has also produced its
own lyricism, musically as well as stylistically. Its intrinsic playfulness has luxuriated in language: puns and nicknames, dialects
and inventories, epigrams and wisecracks, badinage and persiflage, blandishment and vituperation, euphuism and malapropism. The linguistic dexterity of Aristophanes' choruses
reached its uproarious climax in a pnigos, or tongue-twister.
Shakespearean drama abounds in silver-tongued set-pieces: Jaques' blank-verse monologue on the seven ages of man is
mockingly countered by Touchstone's prosy disquisition on the
seven causes for quarreling. Moliere's characters underline his
themes when they reiterate their mots de caractere, as in his
bourgeois gentleman's insistence that everything be fit for "les
gens de qualite" or his miser's delight in withholding a daughter's
dowry: "sans dot." Corporal Nym speaks for comedy in general
with his watchword: "And that's the humor of it."
If tragedy elicits our compassion, comedy appeals to our selfinterest. The former confronts life's failures with noble fortitude,
the latter seeks to circumvent them with shrewd nonchalance.
The one leaves us momentarily in a mood of resignation, the
other in a condition of euphoria. But there must be additional



possibilities. Even the Greeks seem to have recognized a third
dramatic genre in the satyr play, which seems to have been a sort
of mythological burlesque—to judge from the surviving Cyclops
of Euripides, whose tragedies verged episodically upon the borders of comedy. By and large, it was comedy that provided the
more flexible form, so that in Spanish the word comedia signified
almost any kind of play, just as the word for "comedian" signifies
any actor in several other languages than English. Happy endings
are unreliable tests, so long as Dante's apocalypse is classified as a
comedy, or the Philoctetes of Sophocles as a tragedy. Yet even
where the Hellenic patterns have not been imprinted, modes
have been contrasted within the repertories of drama. For instance, between performances of the classic Noh in Japan, farces
were interpolated, the kyogen. The contrast between heroic idealization and a tendency toward caricature seems well-nigh universal, though outsiders may not always sense the peculiarities of
a given esthetic idiom.
Above all, there remains a crucial difference between the
vicarious sympathy that identifies an observer with a protagonist
and the sharpened observation that detaches them from each
other, which may be attributed to a widening of perspectives.
The uniqueness of the tragic protagonist is marked by superlatives. Titus Andronicus views himself as "The woefull'st man
that ever liv'd in Rome." And virtually every tragical lover is a
nonpareil: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of
Juliet and her Romeo." But when Rosalind tries to cool Orlando's ardor in As You Like It, she enumerates a series of mythical
exemplars who neutralize the tragic potentialities into a comic
generalization: "Men have died from time to time and worms
have eaten them, but not for love." If a lover is saying farewell to
his sweetheart and going off to war, we may well sympathize with
them both and join in their mutual commiseration. But if these
lovers are saying farewell on stage right, and if a similar couple is
doing the same on stage left, and if all four are dancing and
singing—along with their mentor—what turns out to be a
quintet with music by Mozart, then we have grounds for noting



and generalizing: "Cosi fan tutte, they'll do it every time, that's
the way all women behave, it's the way of the world."
Modern playwrights, exempt from conforming to the ancient
models, nonetheless felt some need to discriminate, as Bernard
Shaw did when he entitled his early two-volume collection Plays
Pleasant and Unpleasant, or Jean Anouilh when he separately
published Pieces roses and Pieces noires. Comedy and tragedy
both sprang from parallel, if not identical, origins—insofar as the
classicists have been able to explore them, from sacrificial feasts
and other religious ceremonies. Each rite had its myth in due
season, and the play-acting formed part of the celebration. To his
tutelary altar in the orchestra, that dancing-place of the original
Greek theater, Dionysus, the ecstatic god, brought with him the
choric adjuncts of wine, women, and song in early spring. Comedy has been traced back to the revel, or komos, which in turn
looks ahead to the Aristophanic finale, the wedding or gamos.
Phallephoric processions, orgiastic dances featuring satyrs rather
than heroes, were a comic counterpart to the stately tragic dithyrambs, which had fostered panegyric rather than invective.
Revelry—licensed disorder, sometimes proclaimed by
obscenities—was the scheduled order of the day; and the date was
perforce a holiday, as it would be with the Saturnalia in Rome,
and with the analogous seasons of carnival in other cultures,
when the conventional observances of society were relaxed and
even reversed for a topsy-turvy interim. Normally the rules would
be reaffirmed by the episodes of misrule—-though Leroy La Durie, in his Carnival at Ornans, has documented one such occasion when the subversion ended by overturning the status quo.
"Come, woo me, woo me," says Rosalind to Orlando, thereby
reversing the protocol of the sexes, "for now I am in a holiday
humor, and like enough to consent." It is that holiday humor
which pervades the atmosphere of Shakespearean comedy from
Midsummer Eve to Twelfth Night, from the vernal sheep-shearing festivities in The Winters Tale to the autumnal harvest rites
in The Tempest. Even when the appointed day does not celebrate
a ceremonial occasion, it becomes—with all its programmed



outbursts of spontaneity—a happening, a heyday, a field day, a
May Day, an April Fools' Day.
Comedy benefits from being crowded, struggling and kicking,
into the Aristotelian span of one natural day—or better still, a
night: "That Night," as the silent screens used to announce so
climactically. We should remember that Goldsmith's She Stoops
to Conquer is subtitled The Mistakes of a Night; nor, since titles
are the most conspicuous signifiers, should we forget that Le
Manage de Figaro is merely Beaumarchais' subtitle for the play
he called La Folle Journee. The Marx Brothers managed to combine this diurnal or nocturnal timing with a recreational background designed to make the most of it: A Day at the Races, A
Night at the Opera. It remained for the Beatles to compound A
Hard Day's Night. "If all the year were playing holidays," soliloquizes the Prince in Henry IV, "To sport would be as tedious as
to work." All play and no work would make Hal a silly boy. If a
holiday is to be really enjoyed, it should be a day off, a day out, A
Day in the Country, a rare spell of liberation from workaday
chores. Homo ludens, after all, is homo laborans on vacation; the
pastimes of his leisure (otium) afford him relaxation from the
responsibilities of his business (negotium).
When the Menaechmus of Epidamnus, the hard-working,
stay-at-home twin brother, is goaded by domestic frustrations into
taking a night out, the Parasite asks him what's up and he answers: "Furtum, scortum, prandium"—a threefold regimen of
exemplary riotous living. We might catch something of the succinct Plautine jingle with "Pinching, wenching, lunching." It
heralds a major comic gambit, the escapade, which juxtaposes
two contrary lifestyles, that which we escape from and that which
we escape to. To appreciate ludicrousness, William Hazlitt admonished, in his genial essay on "Wit and Humour," one must
be aware of seriousness. Carnival would be warranted by Lent.
Comedy has often braved the indifference, and sometimes risked
the disapproval, of those who are not amused, those who are
never likely to be amused, whom Meredith—borrowing a coinage from Rabelais—christened the agelasts, the non-laughers.



Their patroness should have been Mrs. Grundy, a character in
Thomas Morton's once-popular melodrama, Speed the Plough,
whose offstage presence continually shamed the other characters
into wondering what she would think or say about their goingson. Accordingly, she came to personify the standards of Victorian
respectability that Oscar Wilde would mock in The Importance of
Being Ernest.
Wilde, for whom art was "the only serious thing in the world,"
characterized that play, in one of those verbal polarities which set
its tone, as "a trivial comedy for serious people." For both of his
heroines, as for Longfellow, "Life is earnest." The light-minded
Jack does not become a solid citizen by changing his name to
Ernest; nor does his friend, the aphoristic Algy, who is "never
serious." But their holidays incognito—like Lady Windermere's
past, like Dorian Gray's portrait—hint furtively at Wilde's own
secret escapades, which were so soon to provoke Mrs. Grundy's
public revenge. Wilde strung his epigrams on an improbable
plot, farcical rather than melodramatic as in his other and lesser
plays, refining upon the recent success of the giddy Charley's
Aunt, yet harking back to the prototypes of Terence. Accordingly, the ex-governess Miss Prism plays the Nutrix, the absentminded nanny who turns up so conveniently to complete the
recognition of the long-lost orphan, and thereby to legitimatize
the out-of-hand predicament. Yet in what timely purlieu did she
lose her identifying handbag? Where else but in Victoria Station?


Thus comedy recycles the oldest devices. The Savoy Operas constitute a veritable museum of histrionic conventions. Bernard
Shaw updates the stock formulas by turning them upside down.
The juvenile twins of You Never Can Tell, though brought up on
twentieth-century treatises (predated in 1897), masquerade as
Harlequin and Columbine, and turn the last act into a transformation scene from a Christmas pantomime. In Shaw's first play,
Widowers' Houses, it is the lovers who perversely raise financial
complications when their parents rashly want to see them married; and it is the complicating factor, the slumlord issue, that
strikes the "unpleasant" Shavian note. As Shaw confessed elsewhere, repeating Wilde's shibboleth, "the real joke is that I am in
earnest." Wilde, on the other hand, had called for a "New
Hedonism," and had presented characters—like Viscount Goring in An Ideal Husband—who seem to be "living entirely for
pleasure" (or like Lady Hanbury in The Importance of Being
Ernest, when her husband died and her hair "turned quite gold



from grief"). This does not sound quite so natural as the old
hedonism of Rabelais: the "Do what thou wilt [Fay ce que
vouldras}" of his Abbaie de Theleme.
The latter-day cult of the pleasure principle, for better and for
worse, would not be as single-minded as that of the Restoration,
when Mistress Lovewit resolved, in Etherege's Man of Mode,
"We'll sacrifice all for our diversion," and Pinchwife told
Horner, in Wycherley's Country Wife, "Your business is pleasure. " Hymning the praise of free love in the Renaissance, Tasso's Aminta had dared to affirm that whatever pleased was permitted: "se place e lice." But that would have been in some
Arcadian Golden Age, or else—as Charles Lamb characterized
it, with his apologia for the Restoration dramatists—"a Utopia of
gallantry." In the theater, nonetheless, to please (plaire) is "the
great rule of all rules [la grande regie de toutes les regies}," laid
down by Moliere himself in La Critique de I'Ecole des femmes.
All the other rules prescribed by the academic authorities are
either negligible or nonexistent, as successful playwrights have
attested from Lope de Vega to George Farquhar. "The drama's
laws the drama's patrons give," as Johnson's prologue declared at
the opening of Garrick's Drury Lane, and the axiom was followed
by a play upon words which wryly accepts the necessities of showbusiness: "For we that live to please must please to live."
Every epilogue, in its own way, repeats what Feste the jester
sang for the tag-line of Twelfth Night: "And we'll strive to please
you every day." The farewell appeal for applause in Latin comedy, as Northrop Frye reminds us, brought the playgoers into the
play's resolution: "Plaudite, spectatores, et valete." But they have
been participants all along: when Aristophanes warned them to
look out for the dung-beetle overhead, when the Plautine stagemanager offered them free advice, when Peter Pan begged them
to suspend their disbelief in fairies, when Moliere's plundered
miser Harpagon inquired of the parterre: "Messieurs, mon voleur,
n'est-il point cache la parmi vous?"—and the implication was an
accusation, implying that the audience harbored thieves. Mo-



Here was criticized for breaking the spell of naturalistic illusion,
whereas he was actually reinforcing an older spell of audience
participation, while closely imitating the desperate outcry of the
miser Euclio in Plautus' Aulularia. When the puppet Guignol
voices a similar query today, the attending French children will
loudly answer and obligingly point in the direction taken by the
Theorists have not acknowledged, until quite lately, the extent
to which the spectator shares in the spectacle. It may have embarrassed their residual earnestness to concede that so much energy
had been spent in a mutual process of amusement. Revelling is
both unrespectable and disrespectful by nature. Hence much less
attention has been paid to the ludic and festive than to the didactic
and satirical. Horace, characteristically attracted to the mean
between alternatives, balanced the useful against the agreeable
("utile dulci") and profit against delight ("aut prodesse aut delectare"). The equivocation of that either/or prompted classical critics
to overstress the ethical component. When Bergson specifies playthings as laugh-provoking mechanisms, we should be more mindful than we ordinarily are of his protective concern for the underlying concept of organic vitalism. Meredith sought to rest his case on
"the uses of comedy." It was a just trial, nothing less than a
critique of civilization, for the Earl of Shaftesbury, who considered ridicule to be the test of truth. Aristophanes would never have
passed that test; for his targets—apart from the tragedy of Euripides, whose reputation thrived upon the publicity—included
the demagogy of Cleon and the sophistry of Socrates; and, while
Cleon went undamaged by the attack, alas, Socrates did not.
Truth was not vindicated in either case. Nor has comedy managed to serve a utilitarian function, in spite of those Irish bards
who claimed that their verses could exterminate rats. Many diatribes and apologetics have been devoted to its moral impact pro
and contra, inasmuch as enemies of drama—from the Church
Fathers on—have focussed upon its frivolous surfaces and its
hedonistic implications. Vainly the apologists have attempted to



meet the moralists upon their own ground, as in the controversy
wherein Congreve joined issue with the puritanical Jeremy Collier. To argue that comedy could reform and elevate was to
assume that it influenced conduct one way or another, and consequently to admit that it could deprave and corrupt just as easily.
Its proponents justified it as a social corrective. It should be,
according to Sir Philip Sidney, "an imitation of the common
errors of our life, which [the poet] representeth in the most scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can
be content to be such a one." The premise of Ben Jonson's
"comical satire" was that the spectators, recognizing their faults
and foibles, would improve their behavior. Caught up in a rearguard action against the uncompromising Puritans, Sidney and
Jonson both conceived the drama as an object-lesson, a cautionary fable.
So did their contemporary, Pierre de Larivey, the pioneering
writer of French comedies, using the standard metaphor for a
projected image ("le miroir de notre vie"): "Comedy being the
mirror of our lives, old men learn to keep from looking like
dotards, young men to control themselves in love, ladies to safeguard their virtue, and fathers and mothers to take care of their
families." If a playwright dwells upon errors or pitfalls, presumably it is because he would teach us to avoid them. Larivey's
exemplars—elders, youths, lady-loves, parents—were inevitably
those who had been incorporated into Greco-Roman tradition.
They were enshrined in the works of Terence, which had conveyed their comic paradigms through the Middle Ages, but
scarcely the vis comica itself; for his original audiences had not
found them amusing in performance; and his defensive prologues
bear witness to their relative unpopularity. He survived as a sententious pedagogue. When he is revived at Westminster School
each Christmas, as he was in the schooldays of Jonson and Dryden there, it is because the Elizabethan statutes recommended
him as a model of counsel ("concilium") and good style ("bene
loquendi"). Whenever a sententia comes up, one of those schoolboy maxims for which he was so much quoted, the youthful



performer steps forward and addresses himself to his fellow students, who have been instructed to applaud.
Professionals might well protest, with Sheridan, that the Comic Muse was happiest in the dazzle of the footlights, which reminded her of what the drama's patrons expected. Pointing to her
effigy on one side of the Covent Garden stage, the Prologue to
The Rivals wondered rhetorically:
—Look on her well—does she seem form'd to teach?
Should you expect to hear the Lady—preach?
Yet she could disarm suspicions, meet criticisms, and at times
take shelter within the academy, by professing herself an exponent of wisdom, conventional as well as unconventional. As
such, she came to terms with the morality play, the auto sacramental, the masque, the piece a these, agitprop, and other dramatic vehicles for ideas and ideologies. The idea could be as
commonplace as a proverb or proverbial phrase: You Never Can
Tell, You Can't Take It with You—comic admonitions both, one
predicting surprise, the other prescribing enjoyment. It could
lead the Elizabethans to dramatize some rather well-worn adages:
Hot Anger Soon Cold, The Weakest Goeth to the Wall, Enough is
as Good as a Feast, All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare's
title is somewhat less distinctive than these others, since it would
have fitted any of his comedies, with the possible exception of
Love's Labors Lost. Since this applies to any imbroglio that finds
a solution, it could hardly be more general—or more germane to
Calderon could deliberately set out to illustrate the notion that
a house with two doors is hard to watch (Casa con dos puertos mal
a se de guardar), Pirandello to ironize the assumption that things
are what they seem (Cosi e, se vi para). Carmontelle, who established the minor dramatic genre based on proverbs in the eighteenth century, explained that "there is no comedy which could
not be given a proverb for a title." This simplistic mode is best
remembered through the Proverbes of Alfred de Musset, those



gallant conversations which—like charades—move through a
drawing room toward the fulfilment of their titular dictum: On ne
badine pas avec I'amour, On ne saurait penser a tout, II ne faut
jurer de rien. Most of Musset's precepts seem to be negations,
with a shrug or a warning—no trifling with love, not thinking of
everything, not swearing to anything. Seldom could a moral be
so briskly imposed upon a situation or so expressly pushed toward
its conclusion. Yet something like it was implied by one of our
recurrent figures of speech: the Ciceronian "speculum consuetudinis" (or "glass of custom"), the Shakespearean mirror held
"up to nature," which in their respective turns have restated the
Aristotelian "imitation of life."
Where the reflection flashes a message, it is supposed to act as
an aid to self-correction. When a realistic looking-glass is set
before an observer, it is assumed that—upon due observation—
he may wish to mend his ways, or at least that she may start to
primp a little, as the quotation from Larivey suggests. The resemblance can be ignored by the incorrigible, or passed off as
merely coincidental by the thick-skinned. But, as the motto to
Revizor advises: "Don't blame the mirror, if there's something
wrong with your face." Gogol dramatizes that epigraph when,
after the pecadillos of a small-town bureaucracy have been thoroughly exposed, the Mayor turns and taunts the hilarious spectators: "What are you laughing at? Yourselves." Then a tableau
vivant, into which the actors freeze, holds up a mirror-image to
the audience. This exposure has been precipitated after
Hlestakov, an insignificant but insouciant clerk from a government office, has been mistaken for the important Inspector General, and consequently welcomed and placated with hospitality
and bribery. In the comparable satire of Carl Zuckmayer, Der
Hauptmann von Kopenick, a wily cobbler hoodwinks and
browbeats the local officials by dressing up in an officer's uniform. His imposture—effectual while it lasts—is deliberate,
whereas Hlestakov's was accidental, an assumed identity depending on the mistakes of others rather than native guile.
Consider another case of inadvertent initiation, where a
feckless stranger is complacently feted by a provincial community



on the basis of a misunderstanding about who he happens to be,
J. M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Christy Mahon
owes his hero-worshipping reception to a highly exaggerated
rumor of parricide. Despite the resurrection of his father, it is a
rite of passage for the long-repressed son—possibly, one might
add, a symbolic gesture of Irish rebellion against British rule and,
more universally, a psychic deliverance from constraining authority. The play takes place in what might be a broken-down
Dionysiac shrine, actually a rustic shebeen "near the wild coast
of County Mayo," and proceeds from a wake to a feast, with
concomitant sports and games wherein the anti-hero triumphs.
The free play of this Western World reflects a different image of
himself from the familiar one with which Christy grew up.
"Didn't I know rightly I was handsome," he now exults, "though
it was the divil's own mirror we had beyond, would twist a squint
across an angel's brow."
The worm has turned, the ineffectual plodder has blossomed
out, not as an angel but as a playboy, straying after Dionysus and
his wayward crew, junketing down the highway to Gadshill with
Falstaff, joining the escapades of Wilde's men about town,
"going on a spree" in the formula of Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux
will er sich machen. The well-tried efficacy of that formula has
been tested by Nestroy's Viennese adaptation from an earlier
English farce by John Oxenford, A Day Well Spent, and by its
readaptation into English through Thornton Wilder's Merchant
ofYonkers, more successfully reworked as The Matchmaker, and
ultimately set to rnusic and filmed as Hello, Dolly! (Tom Stoppard has recently added to the chain with On the Razzle, a closer
rendering of the Nestroy version.) Playboys all, the games these
anti-heroes play may appear to be childish or outmoded, silly or
shady, but they are fundamentally celebrations, working days
giving way to holidays. Having been set in motion—so Falstaff
expressed it—"for recreation sake," they conduce to a state of
refreshment, if not rejuvenation. Literally, The Knights of
Aristophanes culminated in a ritual bath, which restored the
youth of the citizen Demos.
The care and preservation of human life depend upon such



playful relaxations, which had the sanction of Saint Thomas
Aquinas: "Ludus est necessarius ad conservationem humanae vitae." The Banns of the Ludus Coventriae, introducing the most
professionalized sequence of English mystery plays, promised:
Whan that ye can, there shal ye sene
The game well played, in good aray.
Of holy wrytte this game shal bene,
And of no fablys be no way.
The very truths of Scripture, not pagan fictions, could be played
like a game. Shepherds, awaiting the Nativity, took part in rural
sports; choirboys, on certain occasions, burlesqued the liturgy;
and schoolmen indilged in sessions of misrule. Yet misrule has
i ever prevailed with :>ut generating its own regulations, mimicki IP; while subverting the established regimen. To please may be
i K: greatest of all rules, but most games have their little rules of
i ;ii?Tib, It has been the part of convention to take them for
fianted, but modern dramaturgy has become increasingly conscious of itself and of life's theatricality. Luigi Pirandello exemplifies this reflexive awareness, perhaps most strikingly in //
tfiiiocci delle parti—the phrase enfolds so many of those ambiguities that it has been freely translated as Rules of the Game,
though its literal signification is both a game and a joke, and its
men and women are merely role-playing. Though it is less well
known than Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore, scenes from it are
rehearsed therein as the play-within-the-play. Here one game
leads to another: marriage to adultery, and adultery to a duel,
where the final joke is on the would-be joker.
There is an abortive duel and an authentic murder in Jean
Renoir's problematical film, La Regie du jeu (pluralized in English, translation as Rules of the Game). Indeed there is an extended string of ludic performances: a fist-fight, a hunt for rabbits
am! pheasants (with some poaching), a round of card-games, a
tangle of flirtations, and a medley of theatricals—including a
m;!:xn;erade, a danse macabre, and a Bergsonian concert from a



mechanical organ. This accelerating entertainment takes place at
a house-party in a chateau, where the couples keep changing
partners and the servants intermingle with the guests. Renoir
seems to have been inspired, by a rereading of Beaumarchais,
Marivaux, and Musset, to attempt a cinematic retrieval of lost
elegances and outdated amenities. But these romps are joyless,
for the codes that might revive them have broken down. If the
characters are at odds with one another and at loose ends with
themselves, it is because no two of them seem to be playing by
the same rules. Yet the party goes on and on; and when the
host—a collector of music-boxes, among other things—cries,
"Get this comedy stopped!," his butler—named Corneille—replies: "Which one, Monsieur le Marquis?"
It is not surprising that a storm of protest should have greeted
the film's premiere, when it was shown on the eve of the Second
World War. It is not for nothing that the phrase jouer la comedie
has come to carry an extratheatrical meaning in French: to pull a
leg, to put someone on, to act out an imposture. Renoir alerts us
to reality by keeping us guessing as to where it begins and comedy
leaves off. Lewis Carroll's Alice had dispelled the phantasmagoria
of Wonderland or of the Looking-Glass by stopping their children's games, by telling her erstwhile playmates that they were
"nothing but a pack of cards" or else, in effect, a set of chessmen.
Such a reduction occurs, to some extent, whenever a curtain falls
upon a last act. As the operatic clown says in I Pagliacci, no
longer singing but speaking: "La commedia e finita." There is
usually a moment of vertigo, while we blink our way out of the
theater. The comedy is finished; the game is over; the jig is up;
and this little commedia dell' arte has meanwhile turned into a
veristic tragedy, leaving us to infer what we have never doubted,
that life is real and art is artificial.
For that very reason, art has less difficulty in living up to its selfimposed principles, arbitrary and formalistic though they must
necessarily be. By momentarily playing along with them, life,
which so often seems unclear and formless, can be hyporhetically
reshaped or—at any rate—clarified. The sense of aftermath can



never last for long; it must, in due course, become a prelude to
further experiences and changing moods. When Goethe first
experienced the Roman Carnival, in 1787, he could hardly wait
for the end to its foolishness (Narrheit). Having once seen it, he
recorded in his Italian notebooks, he felt no interest in seeing it
again. It was not worth writing about, though possibly a sketch or
two of its masks and costumes might be interesting to children. Yet
he was back in Rome next February to immerse himself more
deeply in it, to be somewhat shaken by the spectacle, and to write
an article about it which was published in 1789. He continued to
harbor self-controlled reservations against this session of license
(Karnevalsfreiheit), this resurgence of Saturnalian paganism in the
holy seat of Christian observance, this temporary obliteration of
polite inhibitions and social distinctions.
But the future dramatist of Faust's Walpurgisnacht was fascinated by the street theater of the Corso: the processions and horse
races, the buffoons and dancers, the candles and confetti. Again
he was relieved when Shrovetide ended; he thanked God and the
church for Lent; and, looking back on the revelry that had passed
"like a dream or a fairy tale," he was moved to an Ash Wednesday meditation. He visualized the long and narrow street as the
allegorical scene of earthly existence. Each of us, as spectator and
actor, finds his steps impeded and hemmed in by crowds of
masqueraders. Our keenest pleasures are as transient as those
horses racing past. Fulfilment of desire is exposure to danger; it is
in moments of mad intoxication that liberty and equality can be
most fully enjoyed. Goethe does not hesitate to pronounce a
moral, though he docs not preach a conventional morality.
Faced with the fleeting, the unforeseeable, the all but unbearable
carnival of life, he advises us to take advantage of the occasion, to
join the masked throng while we can, to welcome this release
from our unsought responsibilities, to indulge our fantasies and
gratify our instincts without forgetting our human limitations.


For any study of comedy in its historic development, Aristophanes is primordial. Not, by any means, that he is primitive,
though his cloacal and homophobic snickers may seem adolescent to grown-up tastes. His Dionysiac impetus may carry us back
to the very beginning of things, the brink of cosmogony. Those
exposed and inflated phalli may reveal the dormant but arousable
satyr in human nature. The choruses, especially when the performers are costumed as animals, can sing and dance the prehistoric wisdom of the beast fable. Aristophanes' Wasps are justly
proud of the nasty stings in their tails. Yet the ritualistic formalities of his verse are elaborated to the highest degree of technical sophistication and lyrical splendor. He confesses himself a
late-comer by his old-fashioned distrust of novelty, by his rearguard action against new-fangled practices and policies, plays and
ideas, and by his nostalgia for the good old days of Athenian
democracy and Hellenic peace.
He attained the height of satiric fantasy, literally and figu-atively, in The Birds. Once those buoyant and harmonious crea79



tares have built their model commonwealth in the sky, it becomes the framework for a kind of musical review, as a train of
self-seeking interlopers—typical municipal offenders from Athens and elsewhere—is told off and put down. Cloud-Cuckoo1 ,and is strictly for the birds; Utopia is not to be achieved on land
or sea. For the Athenians and their successors, the play enacted a
series of object-lessons in colonialism and imperialism, bureaucratic manipulation and technological exploitation. (The incomprehensible speeches of the well-meaning Triballian might
even remind us of some Third World delegate to the United
Nations.) The Old Comedy of Aristophanes is pointed as well as
playful, not only edged with satire but reinforced with propaganda. Art is utilized by satire as a weapon, discharging pent-up
animosities while attempting to score in ongoing controversies.
Trying to sum it up, we feel the force of the traditional term for a
synopsis of a play, the argument.
This means playing the game rather dangerously, and possibly
deranging my suggested differentiation between the ludicrous
and the ridiculous. But, as Quintilian observed, it is hard to
separate laughter from derision: "Non procul a derisu est risus."
The pleasure principle is jeopardized by apprehensions that must
be surmounted or dismissed. Self-expression finds an object
through aggression. Ridicule may be a sublimation of sticking
pins in effigies or exhibiting public nuisances in the stocks.
Aristophanic comedy moves toward a celebration, but along the
way it engages in recrimination; it castigates behavior by laughing
at it, with the feasting to offset the fighting. A minor poet of a
later age, Jean Santeul, would solemnize this union with a NeoLatin motto: "Castigat mores ridendo," inscribed upon the curtain of a seventeenth-century theater for the leading FrancoItalian Harlequin of the day, Biancolelli known as "Dominique." Comparably, the Greek verb komoidein—"to eomedize,"
so to speak—had been employed as a synonym for "satirize."
The disparate elements in Aristophanes had come to interact
dramatically, like the choruses of bathing beauties and Keystone
Kops in the films of Mack Sennett.
Old Comedy was deeply rooted in archaic religion, but also in



the polemical vein of iambic poetry. It left its strongest impression as a civic pillory, a vehicle for topical lampoons, and no
respecter of persons in exposed positions unprotected by anything
like libel laws. Gradually the personal attacks were curbed and
softened into Middle Comedy, which relinquished the parabasis—the choric presentation of the playwright's editorial
views—along with what Horace terms the "right of injury [ius
nocendi]," and drew more upon myth and fiction, less upon
current events. Seldom again would the theater, constantly subject to social pressures, address itself so boldly to personalities and
politics. To be sure, Sir Robert Walpole received, from such
playwrights as John Gay, the kind of taunts that Cleon had
provoked from Aristophanes. Governmental reprisals thereupon
brought about the Licensing Act of 1737, which established the
long overlordship of the Lord Chamberlain's Office, and turned
Henry Fielding away from the stage to the novel. Yet censorship
could not always guard against resemblances that were more than
coincidental, whereas Aesopian scrutiny could detect radical
twists in the blandest story-line.
The scene might nominally be neutralized by being set in
some distant country or operatic never-never-land. "As for the
action . . . ," Alfred Jarry announced at the beginning of Ubu
roi, "the place is Poland, that is to say Nowhere." Satire was
described by Jonathan Swift as "a sort of glass wherein beholders
do generally discover everybody's face but their own." That description qualifies the metaphor of the mirror by suggesting that
viewers might be too self-satisfied or insensitive to feel reprimanded or offended by whatever they saw. Moliere professed
himself to be concerned, not with les personnel, but with les
moeurs—one of those keywords which we shall be probing further. Diderot distinguished comic from tragic characters on the
basis of species and individuals. This might cover the stock types
of New Comedy, but it took no account of the recognizable
caricatures in Old Comedy, the only comic genre that Aristotle
knew when he remarked that tragic representation was nobler
than life while comic was baser.
The complex structure of Old Comedy has been formulated by



F, M. Cornford with a lucid outline which has become a classic
in its own right. It stimulated T. S. Eliot to his earliest dramatic
endeavor, Sweeney Agonistes: fragment of an Agon, and it has
been theoretically extended by Northrop Frye. Its central feature,
which states the issue and brings out the characters, is the agon,
or contest. An earlier historian, Jacob Burckhardt, had emphasized what he called das Agonale as an institutional characteristic
of ancient Greek society. Huizinga broadened this conception
and applied it universally. By virtue of "the agonistic principle"
die instinct for play is channeled into competitive games, most
evident in organized sports but present in the more elaborate
manifestations of culture. Vegetation rites were celebrated by
allegorical combats between the personified seasons; fairs and
rodeos and bullfights were breeding grounds for pageantry; handbail games, among the Maya, terminated in the blood-sacrifice of
the losing team.
Conflict is inherent in all drama, and its manner of resolution—whether it favors the protagonists or the antagonistic
forces, whether we exult with the victors or condole with the
losers—is another distinction between comedy and tragedy. At
the core of Aristophanes' dramas it has been formalized into a
great debate. The politician Cleon, scarcely disguised as "the
Paphlagonian," is outheroded by the louder and cruder Sausage
Seller in The Knights. In the more philosophical atmosphere of
The Clouds the debaters are overt personifications of Right Reason and Wrong Reason, Dikaios Logos and Adikos Logos. In The
Frogs it is a theatrical rivalry, wherein the shade of Euripides is
outargued by the ghost of Aeschylus, when the poets' lines are
explicitly weighed on a pair of scales. There was a Scottish parallel in the fly ting, where volleys of poetic insult were formally
exchanged. Individual antagonism, in a courtly milieu, would
have found a structured outlet through duels, though these are
more often threatened than consummated theatrically, as in
Twelfth Night, The Silent Woman, and The Rivals. Touchstone
and Mcrcutio spell out Shakespeare's scorn for the code of the
duello, the rules of that game. Chekhov's early farce, The Brute,



had the temerity to stage an actual duel between its hero and its
heroine. Wedlock, for Punch and Judy, was an unbroken exchange of blows.
The battle of the sexes, the struggle of the classes, the clash of
the generations—the leading themes of Aristophanes still frame
the major problems of Bernard Shaw. The agon is the elemental
plot. Now the word for plot has varying connotations in various
languages: the poetic Greek mythos, the moralistic Latin fabula,
the suggestive French intrigue, the businesslike German Handlung. The English monosyllable signifies originally a plot of
ground, then a map or more general layout, a plan for future
action, and then a nefarious conspiracy or else a mischievous
design, and finally a shaping literary construction. This simplistic
outline can be complicated into the "nice dilemma," the "pretty
mess," or the "how-de-do" from which Gilbert extricates his
Savoyards. The plot of The Tempest is designated by Gonzalo as a
virtual labyrinth, "a maze trod indeed / Through forthrights and
meanders." Similarly, Witwoud in The Way of the World flaunts
the appropriate simile in his valedictory reaction: "I'm in a maze
yet, like a dog in a dancing school." Amazement, at the denouement, puts a finishing touch on amusement.
In All's Well That Ends Well the braggart soldier of fortune
Parolles is much too fatalistic, when he propounds the rhetorical
query: "Who cannot be crushed with a plot?" Plots can always be
foiled by more ingenious counterplots. The timing of the actors'
lines and business is synchronized with the thick and fast increase
in the play's momentum. With the enlargement of the dramatis
personae, the plotting could be doubled or multiplied still further. Traditionally, English dramaturgy has tended to foster an
underplot which parodies the main plot, and which makes room
for the comic episodes in Elizabethan tragedy. In the first significant
example, The Second Shepherds' Play from Wakefield, roughand-tumble whiles away the time until the miraculous star is
sighted; the rustic dialogue, with its wintry complaints, is more
redolent of Yorkshire than of the Holy Land; and the stolen sheep
of the fourth and apocryphal shepherd, Mak, may be viewed in



epiphanic retrospect as the secular counterpart of a more symbolic lamb.
Somewhat arbitrarily and never very conclusively, the classical
five-act scheme was imposed on drama by Horatian precept.
Scholiasts preferred a three-act frame: the protasis or exposition,
the epitasis or complication, and the catastrophe or resolution.
j. C. Scaliger introduced another stage preceding the final one,
the catastasis or additional complication, thickening the plot to
accommodate more characters. They would often be conversely
thin; the elaboration of plot, at the expense of characterization,
would ramify into the sphere of melodrama or farce. Adaptable
commentators, adding the prologue to these four stages, could
again reach a total of five acts. Yet the Spanish drama of the
Golden Age favored a three-act partition. In the most influential
of all handbooks on play writing, Die Technik des Dramas, largely
extrapolated from Shakespeare's craftsmanship, Gustav Freytag
advocated a pyramidal scheme, which normally comprised another triad: Exposition, Climax, Denouement. Harley GranvilleBarker would agree that Shakespearean drama proceeded in three
basic movements. The double plot could eke them out, but it
frequently left one or two of the five acts fairly weak.
Carlo Gozzi, who specialized in transposing scenarios from
the Commedia dell' Arte into literary scripts, came to the conclusion that there were no more than thirty-six dramatic situations.
Goethe once discussed this proposition with Schiller, who believed offhand that there must be a greater number, but could not
count up to tnat many after second thoughts. Can the possibilities be so limited? Not for the esthetician Etienne Souriau,
who would publish a volume predicating Les 200,000 Situations
dmrnatiques. Clearly, any statistical reckoning would depend
upon our categories, on how far we were willing to go in abstracting or particularizing the patterns of human behavior. The comic
process inevitably carries with it a considerable amount of abstraction, even as the ramification of plots is bound to have a
limiting effect upon the particularity of characters. Since the
agon is an argument, it must be determined in favor of one side



or the other. In such a well-regulated adversary proceeding, the
good guys should win out over the bad guys, according to the
dramaturgic and spectatorial sympathies and antipathies.
The very simplest plot for a comedy would be a joke. We may
call it a practical joke, though it usually serves no practical pur
pose, when some sort of hoax is acted out. Yet most of these little
games, however petty, can purposefully subserve the ends of
sharp practice or of conjugal hanky-panky. Such peasant pranks,
narrated by jestbooks, fabliaux, or Schwdnke, were pungently
dramatized in the Shrovetide plays of Hans Sachs and the interludes of Cervantes. We might instance the fifteenth-century
Farce du Cuvier, wherein a henpecked husband is constrained to
draw up a list of his required household duties; when his wife falls
into a washtub, he refuses to pull her out, on the legalistic
grounds that such a rescue has not been nominated in the domestic contract. In spite of the title, it is not the cuvier but the
rollet—not the washtub but the list—which supplies the point of
the farce, the cream of the jest, the assumption of so many
comedies that experience is too contingent a matter to be tabulated in advance.
The soul of the plot, in current theatrical phraseology, is the
"gimmick," defined by the Supplement to the Oxford English
Dictionary as "a tricky device." Hollywood has elevated this
Bergsonian gadget to an animating idea, a veritable source of
inspiration for the whole enterprise. The titular gimmick of that
old Cambridge farce, Gammer Gurton's Needle, is the very
slightest bone of contention: the misplaced article of domestic
utility that turns up eventually—and feelingly—in the scat of her
servingman's breeches, which Gammer Gurton has just been
mending. Meanwhile the prankster, Diccon the Bedlam, whose
epithet proclaims the idiocy he practices and foments, has stirred
up an irrelevant hubbub among the neighboring villagers. In this
case, the real antagonist is material circumstance. The role of
accident places a heavy responsibility on the playwright, as we
shall notice when we come to the question of chance and coincidence; but I may note in passing how much can be made of the



frenzied search for the elusive and commonplace object by mentioning the chase in Eugene Labiche's Italian Straw Hat (Le
Chapeau de paille d'ltalie).
It takes two to make an argument, and it ordinarily takes two
parties to set in motion the agonistic principle. It took no more
than two actors for Aeschylean tragedy, and very little more for
the Japanese Noh. Our proponent is pitted against an opponent
seeking to constrict his freedom of action or to spoil his fun and
games—and incidentally to impair our own innate sense of wellbeing, to deflect us from euphoria toward dyspepsia. That deuteragonist, given the antisocial threat he expresses and the intrusive figure he cuts, may well steal the spotlight from the
protagonist. His is the stellar part in the Dyskolos (or Curmudgeon), the one complete play that has come down to us from
Menander; and he is a perfect prototype for the angry old man,
the senex iratus, of subsequent New Comedy. Lovers and merrymakers, picnicking under the pastoral aegis of Pan himself, are
consistently thwarted by the malevolence of this spoilsport,
Cnemon, until he chances to fall into a well—opportunely, as is
pointed out. Nobody pushed him in, surprisingly enough; that
was true of the housewife in the French washtub; but, on the
other hand, somebody is kind enough to rescue him. The comedy is consummated by his change of heart, and the killjoy is
happily exorcised by joining in the dance for a double wedding.
Shakespeare, in his most representative comedies, relies upon
such tension between the lenten and the carnivalesque. In
Twelfth Night the intruding upstart Malvolio, characterized by
his name as a man of ill will, confronts the master of the Illyrian
revels Sir Toby Belch, who signalizes the confrontation by exclaiming: "Care's an enemy to life." Life will go on to preserve its
affirmative values by expelling the cohorts of care. A roistering
exorcism will not work for Malvolio himself, though he is compelled against his nature to dress up flamboyantly and break into
hideous smiles. He must face ostracism at the conclusion, with
an ineffectual parting shot: "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of
you." Life must triumph; care must become the scapegoat ban-



ished from comedy. It is a different story with the goatsong of
tragedy, as it is a rebuff to the comic spirit when Falstaff is
condemned to banishment. If Malvolio was, as Maria suspected,
"a kind of puritan," he would have his revenge in 1642, when
the playhouses were closed down by the Puritans—then, as ever,
the agelastic party. But they, in turn, would suffer a putdown
from the Restoration in 1660—another interval of triumph for
Sir Toby's cakes and ale.
The wet-blanket cause, for Shakespeare, has an unexpected
spokesman in the melancholy Jaques of As You Like It. Having
shown a streak of misanthropy in his dialectic with Orlando the
lover and with Touchstone the fool, he proposes to become a
moralist and to "cleanse the foul body of the infected world / If
they will patiently receive [his] medicine." This notion of a comic catharsis is borne out by the Jonsonian tropes about a satirical
purge, and sealed by a notorious Elizabethan pun. Sir John
Harington, poet, courtier, and inventor of the water closet, had
introduced that humane contraption with a mock-heroic treatise,
facetiously entitled The Metamorphosis ofAjax. Demythologized
into plainer words, it meant the transformation of a Jakes or
privy. Hence the pun may be applied to Shakespeare's malcontent and his project in moral purgation. Not having realized this
ambition, Jaques will retire from an unpurged world, step aside
from the concluding capers, and—unlike Menander's
Cnemon—declare himself "for other than dancing measures." If
he had to dance, it would be the pas seul of the unpaired
Bunthorne in the finale of Patience.
Ben Jonson addressed himself more single-mindedly than
Shakespeare to the program of "comical satire," of castigation
leading to correction, as set forth by his persona Asper in the
Induction to Every Man out of his Humor. But he gradually
discovered that it was easier to ridicule than to reform, and more
rewarding dramatically to deal with Every Man in his Humor.
The self-righteous asperities of his later spokesmen, such as Surly
in The Alchemist or Wasp in Bartholomew Fair, do no more than
demonstrate that they are out of step with most of their fellows,



nearer perhaps to the malcontents of Jacobean tragedy. His greatest grumbler, Morose in The Silent Woman, who can stand no
noise and is therefore almost drummed to death by crescendos of
auditory harassment, is not simply another congenital grouch.
He was the ideal "character of humor" for Congreve, just as The
Silent Woman was for Dryden "the pattern of a perfect play," and
his successful foil was well named Truewit, as the forerunner of
many a Restoration spark. Never was the eternal opposition of
playboy to killjoy more sharply delineated.
What these killjoys have primarily in common is that they are
agelasts. They cannot make a joke; they cannot take a joke; they
cannot see the joke; they spoil the game. Humorless and unconsciously humorous, in the Falstaffian sense of being natural butts
ior wit, they cannot adapt their preconceptions to actuality, when
it unavoidably presses upon their lives. Such is Arnolphe in
Moliere's Ecole des femmes, consummate pantaloon and jealous
guardian, making one mistake after another in his January-May
courtship of his nubile ward Agnes, who is not quite lamblike in
her docility. Ironically, her suitor Horace makes his older rival
his confidant, and talks about his progress with the young woman
step by step, but pauses because Arnolphe is so hard put to share
his mirth. "You aren't laughing enough [Vous n'en riez pas
assez}," says Horace to Arnolphe. How can he laugh, under the
circumstances? Since the joke is on him, he is not amused. What
is so funny about it? This is no laughing matter. But of course it is
even funnier to us, in ironic perspective, than it could be to
Horace, since we know how and why they have reached this
contretemps, and Horace does not know whom he has outrivalled.
Moliere's Tartuffe would be an even more stiff-necked personage than the connubial preceptor Arnolphe, were he not—as the
subtitle warns us—an impostor, playing a double game. His
unforgettable entrance, with its opening line and ensuing business, delayed and prepared for by two acts of suspense and hearsay, makes his hypocritical role-playing crystal-clear. Somber,
sallow, sanctimonious, with spare locks and nasal accents, he



loudly and ostentatiously orders his manservant in the wings to
lock up his hair shirt and scourge; then, averting his eyes from the
buxom maidservant Toinette, he offers a prurient handkerchief
to cover her decolletage. His intrusion is more effective than
Malvolio's, in dominating a household, since there is no merry
crew like Sir Toby's to campaign against him—only the pert
soubrette and a sardonic raisonneur. He is very nearly the interloper triumphant at the dispossessing climax, when he turns
the tables on the householders and all but expels his erstwhile
patron Orgon:
C'est a vous d'en sortir, vous qui parlez en maitre.
La maison est a moi. Je le ferai paraitre.
This pivotal couplet might be approximately rendered:
You think you own this house. You don't any more.
It now belongs to me; and there, sir, is the door.
It is a precarious moment: which is the scapegoat? who is excluding whom? Moliere had plotted so well on Tartuffe's behalf that
nothing short of royal intervention could save Orgon. Nor could
the production itself have been saved from a clerical ban, if Louis
XIV had not been willing to act as an offstage deus ex machina.
Tartuffe owes his expulsion to the removal of his mask, to the
pass he makes at Orgon's wife Elvirc, with the admission that—
like Shakespeare's Angelo, at a similar point in Measure for Measure—he is no angel. The comic spirit was rescued from one of
its narrowest scrapes by exposing a latent streak of the playboy in
the two-faced temperament of drama's most menacing killjoy.


We have seen enough of the tactics deployed in the perennial war
of the laughers against the non-laughers so that we might hesitate
to say which takes the offensive, which the defensive side. As
fellow laughers we stand committed to the playboy, viewing his
eternal adversary, the killjoy, as a marplot or blocking character.
Hence our hero has no choice; he too must become a plotter, if
only to remove or circumvent the blocks in what might otherwise
be a spontaneous, uncontested, and purely hedonistic pursuit of
the pleasure principle. Homo ludens can protect his interests by
emerging as homo deludens, the trickster, under the mythical
patronage of Hermes or Loki. Now a trick was defined by Dr.
Johnson as "a dexterous artifice." When it is not an acrobatic feat
or a gainful ruse, it can be a joke, played by someone, the joker,
on someone else, the joker's unwitting agonist: in tripartite Italian, il beffa, il beffatore, and il beffato. It is an agon, in other
words, between perpetrator and victim.
The original trickster was the Devil, the ultimate villain and
spinner of cosmic plots in Judeo-Christian mythology, and con40



sequently more enterprising, energetic, and colorful than its sacred figures, who were reverently treated as passive abstractions.
The Satanic adversary became one of the most popular performers in the mystery cycles, much demanded by spectators crying
out: "The Devil for my money!" His deputy, the Vice, brandishing his attributive dagger of lath, was extremely active as the
principal rnischief-maker in the morality plays, the half-clownish
and half-sinister agent of temptation and seduction. And since
his venue was the primrose path, rather than the everlasting
bonfire, there was little compunction in the enjoyment of his
beguiling presence. It was another of the Devil's deputies, Mephistopheles, who became the misguiding courier of the legendary
Faust. One of Thomas Middleton's city comedies is entitled A
Trick to Catch the Old One—"trick" signifying plot in both the
dramaturgic and conspiratorial senses, and "Old One" the figure
known more familiarly as "Old Nick."
Thus the challenge was raised that Mr. Punch would face in
his irascible way: to beat the Devil, to outdo Old Nick at his own
game, to escape the consequences of one's own misbehavior.
Goethe's Faust—not Marlowe's, nor most of the others—was the
casuistic exception to prove the inescapable rule. Even the most
spectacular challenger, Don Juan Tenorio, could not finally win
so diabolic a wager. However, it is significant that his originator,
Tirso de Molina, thought of him not primarily as a philanderer
or libertine, but as the arrant Trickster of Seville (El Burlador de
Sevilla). Glorying in the epithet, it was his favorite caprice to
trick or cheat a woman sexually ("burlar una mujer"). It was his
unpardonable trespass to reckon up those amorous conquests as if
they were tricks in a game of cards, and the plaints of the women
he tricked were destined to overtake him with an infernal retribution. Against a mandate of poetic justice the trickery ceases to
work, and epicurean banqueting is confounded by statuesque
morality. The obsessive sexism of Don Juan is avenged when
prostitutes refer to their clients as "tricks."
Don Juan, with the help of a tricky assistant, specialized in
sexual exploits on his own behalf. Other tricksters, more busi-



nesslike, set up as hired agents for still others, jacks-of-all-trades
and Johnny-do-it-alls, like Figaro the factotum in Rossini's opera. His adroit predecessor, Moliere's Scapin, was himself the
heir of Scappino, the professional intriguer from Naples, who
fetched his name from scappare ("to get away"); but on the
whole, Les Fourberies de Scapin had been modelled on Terence's
play about the parasite Phormio. Moliere's rogue, though a servant, is a free agent, officially characterized as "valet de chambre
et fourbe," two vocations that sort well together. He presents
himself as a benevolent intermeddler who takes a friendly interest
in young people: "I'homme a m'interesser aux affaires des jeunes
gens." Just let him handle their affairs: "laissez-moi faire." For he
is an operator, a technician, "un machiniste"; he can "machiner
I'intrigue"; and when he advises a stratagem, "la machine est
This vocabulary fits in nicely with Bergson's emphasis on the
mechanics of laughter. We speak too of a villain's machinations,
lago's techniques of deception may well strike us as no less comic
than tragic, while the rogueries of Scapin or of the anti-heroes in
picaresque fiction sometimes overstep the tenuous line between
mischiefs and misdeeds. Though Ben Jonson professed to "sport
with human follies," he had some difficulty in maintaining that
line, especially through the dark cross-purposes of Volpone,
which terminates all too earnestly in criminal proceedings. His
more ebullient confidence-games were warranted on intellectual,
if not on ethical, grounds; his gulls behave so foolishly that they
sooner or later deserve to be coney-caught by his knaves. Were
they not asking for it, after all? Do they not bring their comeuppance upon themselves? The hard-boiled attitude of their deceivers could be justified by a medieval Latin proverb, "Qui vult
decipi, decipiatur"—which has been unconsciously translated
into our vernacular by W. C. Fields: "Never give a sucker an
even break."
Operators like to have a center, a base for their operations,
even though it be denounced by one of jonson's Puritans as a
"seat of falsehood" and a "cave of cozenage." If the Alchemist's
headquarters in Blackfriars (the district of London where Jonson



himself resided) is a less glamorous locale than a Venetian palazzo, the self-destructing Philosophers' Stone proves to be a more
tantalizing magnet than Volpone's putative will. The centripetal
movement of these two neatly constructed plays relaxes in the
raffish environment of Bartholomew Fair, where a fresh assortment of dupes gets defrauded again by a heterogeneous assemblage of sharpers on all sides. Jonson was so fond of charlatanism because he delighted in exposure, and prided himself
upon knowing the knavish tricks of the illicit trades. Ethical
concerns are straightened out by his last-act reversals, most of
them more deftly managed than the second trial scene in Volpone (for which he offered excuses in his preface). But Jonson
leaves us with a lingering doubt: if crooks can practice confidence-games by passing themselves off as friends and experts,
ought we not to view our friends and experts with suspicion?
There is always a double satisfaction, mischievous and virtuous at once, in seeing the cheater cheated; and the irony is
heightened further when the deviser is victimized by a device of
his own contrivance. ''For 'tis the sport to see the engineer /
Hoist in his own petard." Hamlet's sentiment in dispatching
Rosencrantz and Guildcnstern is crudely exemplified in the
primitive film of Louis Lumiere, L'Arroseur arrose (1895), where
the amusement consists in watching a gardener get sprinkled by
his own sprinkler. When Jonson transplanted his settings from
Italy to England—and, in The Alchemist, to his own neighborhood—he explained that
Our scene is London, 'cause we would make known
No country's mirth is better than our own.
This declaration is not as patriotic as might superficially appear,
for it continues:
No clime breeds better matter for your whore,
Bawd, squire, impostor, many persons more,
Whose manners, now called humors, feed the stage.



In short, there will be much the same old east of shady arid seedy
types who have been befooling one another on European stages
ever since ancient times. Jonson was anglicizing them, even as
Ariosto had italianized them a century before, when he set I
Suppositi in his local Ferrara with the pictorial aid of Raphael.
Their contemporary, Machiavelli, who sets his plays in a recognizable Florence, jested about such transpositions, telling the
audience of La Clizia that Athens was now in ruins, after all—
and besides, they would not understand Greek.
The Latin comedies that literature has preserved are fabulae
palliatae, garbed in the pallium because they are located somewhere in Greece, commonly but not always in Athens. The more
ephemeral ones, located at Rome, were fabulae togatae, garbed
in the toga. Something of the Romans' attitude toward contemporary Greeks is revealed in the Plautine verb pergraecari (to
revel, "to Greek it up," as it were). Solid Roman citizens looked
slightly askance at such playboys, clever but slippery, cultivated
but decadent; the prejudice is echoed when Shakespeare alludes
to "merry Greeks." Latin prologues frequently acknowledge
Hellenic sources; and Plautus in the Menaechmi goes out of his
way to state that what must for the nonce be Epidamnus (the
Adriatic port on the coast of what is now Albania) would be a
different town in another play:
Haec urbs Epidamnus est, dum haec agitur fabula;
quando alia agetur, alia fiet oppidum.
This particular place-name will at least allow a premonitory
quibble on "damnum," which can be preserved if translated by
"damage." Furthermore, as the prolocutor points out, any single
dwelling might house a changing series of tenants. But the dwellers he mentions are the unchanged archetypes of comic tradition: senex, adulescens, leno, parasitus. The passage from Old to
New Comedy had involved a shift from heroic and mythical to
bourgeois and domestic fictions, along with the development of a



standard characterization, closer links with the middle class, and
increasing moments of seriousness and sentimentality.
When the ceremonious singers and dancers abandoned the
orchestra, their horizontal sphere, attention had shifted to a vertical proscenium, an enlarged and ornamented stage-building,
conventionally representing a busy townscape, as contrasted with
the stately temple or palace of the tragic scene. From the specifications of Vitruvius to the drop curtains of music hall or vaudeville, the city street has been the main locale for comedians.
Oriented by Roman convention, it led to the harbor in one
direction and to the forum or marketplace in the other. For the
town, more likely than not, was a seaport, whose topography bore
witness to the mercantile interests of the environing culture. The
doorways represented adjacent houses; it was very convenient for
the lovers, in the Miles Gloriosus, to live next door to one another. Such domiciles would be regularly numbered by the Italians as prima, seconda, and terza casa. This arrangement promoted a good deal of neighborly byplay, many threshold-, window-, or balcony-scenes, and much ensuing curiosity as to what
was going on behind the Vitruvian fagades.
In the competitive arena of townsmen and tradesmen, the
profit motive prevailed. When the parasite Artotragus flatters the
braggart soldier Pyrgopolinices with a detailed recollection of his
boasts, the boaster asks the sycophant how he happens to have
such a good memory. The succinct reply is "Offae monent
[Meals remind me]." Marx himself could not have more bluntly
reduced heroics to economics. "Get money, boy," is the acquisitive attitude that Jonson inveighs against most severely
through Every Man in his Humor. Even in the religious mysteries of the Middle Ages, the Goldsmiths' Guild was enabled to
display and advertise its wares by enacting the pageant of the
Magi. Another member of that trade has left his name as a
byword for self-interest. In Moliere's Amour medicin, when
Sganarelle's daughter is depressed (or pretends to be for romantic
reasons), he seeks the advice of his family and neighbors. M.
Josse, the jeweler suggests that it would cheer the girl up if a fine



necklace were purchased for her, presumably at his shop. Each of
these advisers is equally venal, suggesting a remedial measure
which would benefit himself or herself more than the patient.
Sganarelle's reproof is a reminder that none of them speaks from
disinterested concern: "Vous etes orfevre, M. Josse." You yourself
are a goldsmith, you're in the business, you're the beneficiary,
cui bono?
Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic, as one who knows the
price of everything and the value of nothing, could be interpreted
as another distinction between the comic and the tragic outlook.
A regard for values sounds high-minded and ennobling, while
talk about prices has a reductive and deprecatory effect. When
every man has his price, and every woman hers, masculine
honor and feminine virtue are subject to unending devaluation.
The bonds that attach human beings to one another are no
stronger than the cash nexus, when the bidding goes up or the
haggling goes down. This does not mean that such a realization is
immoral or amoral. Rather, it stands upon high moral ground to
take a low view of human nature. It consistently suspects the
worst. Thus, in L'Ecole des femmes, when Arnolphe is jealously
interrogating his silly little Agnes about her lover's advances, she
confides: "II ma pris le—," then pauses and repeats herself, still
keeping the noun in suspense. After Arnolphe's suspicions have
aroused the most teasing speculations as to what precisely his
rival has taken in hand, it is naively revealed that the young man
was clutching an innocent ribbon. Moliere succeeded in scandalizing his critics by an interrupted article, that suggestive le—.
Sterne would employ a more prurient dash to break off his Sentimental Journey.
The cynicism that reduces everything to sex or money ends by
reducing sex to money. Not that money in itself is quite so
universal; it counted for less in societies where status counted for
more; but there has been no stronger incentive to selfishness,
which comedy attacks in all its phases. What some of these
attacks reflected was a traditional aristocratic bias against the merchant class. "If an alderman appears upon the stage," wrote



Joseph Addison, "you may be sure it is in order to be cuckolded."
His financial successes were duly paid for by his marital humiliations. Money, if not the root of all evil, has been the whetstone of
wit, and the frequent source of corrupt motivation, particularly
during certain historical periods. The nineteenth-century agon of
capitalism, denounced by Marx and chronicled by Balzac, was
dramatized by such boulevard playwrights as the younger Dumas
in La Question d'argent and Octave Mirbeau in Les Affaires sont
les affaires. The monetary question is always with us, and business is proverbially business—what else? Well, it can be a pretty
name for swindling, Mirbeau tells us ("des escroqueries qu'[on]
decore du nom des affaires"). And the word affairs, which can
also denote lawsuits or love affairs, is much more resonant than
the stodgy business.
Pecuniary motivation may not be the final cause; but, when it
is singled out by comic low-mi.ndedness, it helps us to see
through the verbal embellishments and the idealistic pretenses
that mask a predatory materialism. The dog-eat-dog regime of
French eighteenth-century tax-farmers, as unmasked by Lesage
in Turcaret, opens up a mundane vista of universal chicanery.
Frankly and exultantly the clever servant Frontin concludes to
his female accomplice: "Nous plumons une coquette, la coquette
mange un homme d'affaires, I'homme d'affaires en pille d'autres;
cela fait un ricochet de fourberies le plus plaisant du monde." But
how very amusing! They are fleecing a coquette, who is bamboozling a businessman, who is plundering innumerable others,
in the most agreeable rebound of rogueries. Truly, as the author
commented afterward, "all of the personages are vicious." This
puts them on the plane of Machiavelli's Mandragola, whose plot
is enmeshed in an even tighter network of mercenary motives,
though animated by an erotic impulse.
Its mainspring is the resolve of the gallant Callimaco to seduce
the virtuously named Lucrezia, money being no object and scruple no obstacle. Her chastity and her husband's jealousy would
together be impregnable, were it not for her childlessness and his
frustrated philoprogenitivcness. The Machiavellian gimmick is



an equivocal nostrum, supposedly extracted from the mysterious
mandrake-root, a narcotic much conjured with in fabulous lore.
A potion and a poison, it is said to cure and to kill; it promises
fertility in the long run, but immediate death to the woman's first
bedmate after the dosage. Callimaco will play both the prescribing doctor and the connubial proxy. But how to overcome Lucrczia's stubborn honor? Others will have to join in persuading
her: her own mother, her self-cuckolding husband, above all her
father-confessor, Frate Timoteo. But who or what will persuade
them? To Callimaco's query the plotter Ligurio offers this pithy,
sharp-sighted, and all-inclusive response: "Tu, io, i danari, la
cattivitd nostra, la loro [You, me, money, our wickedness,
That complicity all but pushes the lover into the lady's bed.
During their night together the Friar remains onstage before the
church, noting in his anxious monologue that the statue of the
Madonna has become tarnished and that her lamp has gone out.
Yet, apart from those reproving symbols, everybody is happy in
the end. Everyone gets what he wanted, whether in fornication,
procreation, or cash. Cheerfully the unconsulted heroine accepts
the situation as the will of heaven. In a modern comedy about a
similar triangle, They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney
Howard, and in its musical version, Mos' Happy Fella, the happiest character is the beaming foster-father of his wife's lover's
child. The cynical crassness of "money talks" is wishfully
mellowed by the facile sentimentalism of "love conquers all."
But Machiavelli, the arch-realist of political power, in turning
from The Prince to the bourgeoisie, was not likely to soften his
own acumen. In both works he may have overstressed the trickster's wiles; yet a devil's advocate does no harm by alerting us to
the ambushes of guile and venality. People do not invariably act
out of self-interest, but it is safer to take that for granted than to
ignore it.
As Congreve states in his preface to The Double Dealer, "It is
the business of the comic poet to paint the follies and vices of
human kind." This is no more than part of the total picture, to be



sure; yet it is that part upon which worldliness thrives; and to
neglect it would be to sentimentalize, to indulge in self-deception, to look upon the world with a wavering eye. In dwelling
upon such matters we justify ourselves by quoting the best-known
sententia of Terence: "Homo sum; nihil humanum a me alienum
puto." In the Heauton Timorumenos the line is spoken by an
unpleasant old busybody, Chremes, as a lame excuse for his
officious curiosity. The centuries seem to have redeemed it from
its dramatic context and broadened it into a credo for humanists
or humanitarians, so that it now expresses the fellow-feeling of
anyone who is humane for anything that has to do with humanity. That includes an appalling amount of egocentricity, which
runs counter to our more sociable instincts. Comedy resolves the
contradiction and rights the balance by showing up our failings—
and, if we consider them failings, we recognize higher standards.
These are maintained, not so much by living up to them, as by
shaming others who do not do so.


"La malice naturelle aux hommes est le principe de la comedie,"
wrote the philosophe Marmontel, in the article on comedy that
he contributed to the rationalistic Encyclopedie. We need not
accept his premise, the inherent malice of human nature; but it
will aid us in understanding why the comic viewpoint had been
regarded as unworthy by philosophers ever since Plato, and why
it was so assailed by Marmontel's tender-minded contemporary,
Rousseau. Richard Steele had already campaigned for more virtuous characters, and that mode of comedy had turned out to be
not very comical. The propensity toward ridicule seems to have
been at its strongest among the satirists in the Age of Reason, and
to have been subsequently